Monet. Matisse. Masters of the masterpiece. Names you’re likely familiar with and perhaps while traveling abroad, may have even had a chance to view their works in person.
Fortunately for Savannah residents and visitors, Telfair Museums temporarily transplants 30 paintings by the first distinctly modern artists into an exquisitely curated exhibit, “Monet to Matisse: Masterworks of French Impressionism.”
In spite of the ocean that separates our continents, a solid artistic connection exists between Savannah and Paris. “People who have been involved with the Telfair Museums and are familiar with our collection know that American Impressionism is really crucial to Telfair’s institutional history,” explains Courtney McNeil, chief curator and deputy director for curatorial affairs.
The bequest of Mary Telfair in 1875 included her home and a small collection of paintings and furniture. But it was the first museum director, Carl Brandt, who formed the museum’s collection with artwork he purchased or commissioned during travels to Europe. After Brandt’s death in 1905, artist Gari Melchers, the museum’s fine art advisor, acquired some of the Telfair’s most prominent works by American Impressionists artists such as Childe Hassam and Frederick Carl Frieseke, who were considered avant-garde.
“Those are still some of the most beloved and definitely the most important works in our collection,” says McNeil. “And considering the museum’s roots in the American side of Impressionism, we were really excited to blend in the French Impressionists, who were, of course, the artists who originated that movement in Paris.”
Prior to the late 18th century, the salon exhibitions in Paris had a long tradition of celebrating realistic paintings based in religion and history that followed strict academic conventions of what constituted fine art. However, as the social and cultural milieu evolved, many artists followed. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s urban renewal of Paris in the 1860s brought railway stations and deluxe apartment buildings to the city and with them an emphasis on public leisure and a new sense of what it meant to live in modern times.
Artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas responded by veering away from realistic depictions of invented subjects and instead painted the sensory effect, or “impression,” of an actual place or object. This resulted in a collection of alluring work that plays with the interpretation of light and movement and often focuses on recording the modern life of the middle class, effectively taking art from the studio to the streets with en plein air painting.
The Impressionists were initially rejected as radical and unskilled by the leading salons in Paris and consequently had to establish their own salons to exhibit their work. After several independent exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, Impressionism finally gained popularity by the late 1800s, drawing thousands of visitors to exhibits and gaining acceptance as a legitimate art form that would profoundly influence the younger painters like Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat, encouraging them to experiment with both technique and subject.
American artists kept a close eye on what was happening in Europe. In fact, to even be considered a serious artist, one had to first study in Europe. After receiving training abroad, the latest trends that originated in Europe would filter back to the States, as was the case with Impressionism. For instance, Philadelphia-born artist Mary Cassatt lived most of her adult life in France, first studying under Degas and then exhibiting with the Impressionists (Cassatt’s work is also featured in the Telfair exhibit).
The impressionist exhibit now on display brings this history full circle: The works by American artists influenced by the French Impressionists eventually found their way to the Telfair Museum, the oldest public art museum in the South, and today Telfair honors those historical roots by bringing the French Impressionist masters to art lovers who may not otherwise gain access. Notably, this includes every fourth grader in Savannah’s public schools who are given the opportunity to visit the exhibit with their class, thanks to an educational partnership program with Telfair Museums.
Telfair Museums also offer a number of events to complement the exhibit, including a ticketed luncheon and evening lecture on November 7, 2018, with Ross King, a best-selling author who has written extensively on Impressionism. Finally, the museum provides guided tours of the exhibit, giving visitors a more immersive experience with knowledgeable docents.
Just as the Impressionists sought to depict “everyday life” in a beautifully interpreted way, Telfair Museums aim to make this beauty accessible to everyone so that they may appreciate its technique, understand its provenance and learn from its influence. Regardless of one’s age, experience or interest, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by these masterworks.
While You’re There…
“Monet to Matisse: Masterworks of French Impressionism” is certainly the featured exhibition, but visitors should also invest time in these other fine art exhibits on display.
The Language of Vision: Early Twentieth-Century Photography Now through January 13, 2019, Jepson Center
This moving exhibit features work from four prominent photographers who transformed the medium from creating staged or overly romanticized images to instead objectively capturing individuals in their natural environment. Ralph Steiner (1899–1986), Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902– 2002), Walker Evans (1903–1975) and Helen Levitt (1913–2009) each produced timeless images that capture the human condition at the turn of the century.
Savannah Families Abroad: The Consumption of Culture in the 19th Century, Now through March 10, 2019, Telfair Academy
This exhibition dedicates the Telfair Academy’s four upstairs galleries to a number of never before seen works in the permanent collection. The exhibit includes fine art and furnishings acquired by affluent Savannah families during their travels to Europe. “Wealthy Americans in the 19th century did not consider their education to be complete until they traveled to Europe to absorb the culture,” explains Courtney McNeil, Telfair Museums’ chief curator and deputy director for curatorial affairs. “The exhibit shows what they brought back from their travels but also takes a critical look at the idea of Orientalism that was so widely accepted at the time.”
“Trés Mall”, Now through April 1, 2019, Jepson Center
Savannah area artist Derek G. Larson wrote, directed and animated this 50-minute, three-episode film playing continuously in Jepson Center’s auditorium. “Trés Mall” follows three fictional Savannah artists as they try to reimagine what to do with a former The Limited store that sits in a strip mall which Jon, the main character, has inherited. Larson’s characters—with their laidback and borderline enervated personalities—encounter real-life intellectuals across the disciplines (in animated form) and broach topics such as art, philosophy, activism, and the environment.